Genre and Fiction

In this section, Shariann Lewitt discusses the distinction that is often made between genre and literary fiction, and the importance of structure to all kinds of writing.

There has been a longstanding idea that genre, because it is commercial and part of the popular press, is a lesser artistic form, not deserving of serious study and attention. I don't agree at all. While genre can be seen as a marketing category, and in some ways is a marketing category, literary fiction has the same ideas of tropes, clichés, and negotiating reader expectations that every other genre does. Literary fiction tends to be highly privileged in the academy, but it obeys the same rules. Genre in general is given short shrift, which is not only markedly unfair, it's also part of the reason structure is too often neglected in classroom discussions and curricula.

This is a more advanced class. Almost all of the students come in having already taken 21W.755 Reading & Writing Short Stories, and they're more interested in looking at longer work. That's part of the reason why I choose novels for the class to read—I want students to see the structure of longer works. Generally in writing courses, structure is too frequently ignored because genre tends to be ghettoized. There is a tendency in literary fiction for people to be snobby. The sentiment is, "It all comes from internal knowledge, and art, and we don't look at art that way." I disagree. Art is like everything else, it has to have an underlying skeleton to hold it together. That is structure. Having a conscious and explicit understanding of what the structure is does not necessarily make something less artistic, or less true, or less beautiful.

I want my students to learn to write good fiction. I always emphasize character as a hallmark of good fiction, and how plot grows from character, and we talk about the differences between character-driven and plot-driven fiction. Good fiction overall is the base for writing any kind of good genre fiction, and genre fiction is a fiction of character.